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Covid-19 is ChangIng the Way People Think About Cannabis

As a rabbi who works in the cannabis industry, I’m considered safe. Neighbors, friends, even fellow clergy approach me with questions and requests: “How do I join the program?” “Does cannabis help with [fill-in-the-blank]?” “Do you have any samples?” The questions vary, but the conversations usually end the same way:

“Rabbi, please keep this between us.”

“Of course,” I respond, “Your secret is safe with me!”

But inside, I know that keeping quiet about cannabis is ultimately dangerous. Secrecy perpetuates the stigma and shame that have for too long accompanied cannabis in American culture. But in the Age of COVID-19, secrecy may no longer be necessary.

In early March 2020, as the Coronavirus spread across the country and cities were plunged into quarantine, America’s reliance on cannabis became undeniable. Legal dispensaries were beset with long lines and record-breaking sales, as the public feared that stores would soon be forced to closed. Relief set in when 27 states enacted stay-at-home orders that allowed access to cannabis in some form. Twenty-three states would deem cannabis as essential as bread and milk. Almost overnight, COVID-19 made clear what industry insiders, patients, and woke medical professionals had long known: Cannabis is essential to the healthcare and self-care of millions of Americans. It was a revolutionary moment that was a long time in the making.

Opinions about cannabis have been rapidly evolving since the mid-1990s, when California became the first state to legalize the medical use and sale of cannabis. Since then, cannabis has been on a steady track toward mainstream acceptance. In 2017, the Washington Post reported that more than half of U.S. adults had tried cannabis at least once in their lives, and a 2019 Pew Research poll revealed that 91 percent support the legalization of cannabis in some form.

But paradoxes persist

Today, nearly a quarter-million Americans make their living working full-time in the cannabis industry. That’s more people than work in U.S. steel, iron and coal combined! While these numbers are astonishing, they don’t tell the whole story. Despite the value that Americans place on cannabis, not a single health insurance company provides coverage for cannabis-related medical expenses. Only a handful of medical schools educate their students in its use. Cannabis remains a Schedule 1 Drug in the eyes of the Federal Government (on the same level as heroin), with no accepted medical use. Even more humbling, in 2018, 40 percent of U.S. drug arrests were for cannabis-related offenses—mostly possession. A 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union concluded that black people were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested, and in some states six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested.

This is the paradox of cannabis in America.

In recent months, as state after state hosted press conferences declaring cannabis essential, users across the country rejoiced, but most did so quietly—the result of nearly a century of anti-cannabis laws and propaganda. Cannabis may enjoy widespread public acceptance in the polls, but its use remains laden with stigma and shame. For many, cannabis is something to be kept hidden, out-of-sight of judgmental neighbors, concerned family members, and narrow-minded co-workers.

With COVID-19, an opportunity arises.

However, COVID-19 presents an opportunity to address this paradox head-on. Government-issued stay-at-home orders and self-quarantining practices have forced many of us into closer proximity. Cannabis users have had to upend long-established practices for keeping cannabis use private. The smell of cannabis smoke emanating from a backyard patio or seeping out from an upstairs closet has forced many families (and neighbors) to have difficult conversations, which some have spent years avoiding. Quite a few cannabis users have reached out to me to discuss these tensions. The questions I hear the most: “If cannabis is an essential medicine, why am I vaping it in my basement bathroom? And why am I so scared to admit I use it? Is it OK to hide from my own family?”

What happens when self-care and well-being through cannabis are suddenly a conversation that we must have with our loved ones because we’re sharing the same living space? And how do we handle the guilt and shame that can accompany cannabis use? Because I’m both a Rabbi and the Director of National Outreach for a national cannabis company, people ask me these questions all the time.

Exploring guilt and shame as they relate to cannabis.

First, let’s differentiate between guilt and shame, which are too often used interchangeably. Guilt is the sense that our actions are problematic… shame is the belief that we are problematic. The impact of feeling guilt vs. shame is also distinct. While guilt can be a stimulus for human development and self-improvement, shame is more often stifling and destructive. In other words, you can be motivated by guilt and paralyzed by shame.

In many religions, guilt is a component of spiritual practice. Shame, on the other hand, is not. A 2019 study by the American Psychological Association explained that guilt “…made individuals feel remorse, tension or regret.” While shame left them feeling “…small, worthless or powerless.” Guilt is an acknowledgment that we do better. Shame stops us from even trying. The time has come to extricate shame from cannabis.

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